The 2017 NBA Draft is one that Denver Nuggets fans generally view with disdain. It is often regarded as the one blemish on an otherwise very impressive track record for Tim Connelly, Artūras Karnišovas and the rest of the Nuggets front office. It’s not without good reason. Denver infamously traded away the pick that the Utah Jazz used to draft Donovan Mitchell, and followed it up by curiously selecting Tyler Lydon, a player who played the same position and had a similar skill set to Trey Lyles. Lyles of course had been acquired about 30 minutes prior in the aforementioned trade. Two seasons later, neither Lyles nor Lydon is on the Nuggets roster. Despite this, the 2017 draft can’t be ruled as a failure. The Nuggets hit second round gold with Monte Morris and now bring over the very final player they acquired that night: Vlatko Čančar.
What’s his backstory?
I remember that draft night well (it ended with a Pepsi Center parking lot rant on Facebook live). I can also distinctly remember Vlatko being picked. Of course no one in the media lounge had any idea who he was. We’re all die hard basketball fans, but there’s not too many in that room following KK Mega Bemax (formerly KK Mega Leks). Maybe we should considering they play in the Adriatic league, which is pretty darn good, and both Vlatko and Nikola Jokić played for them. That fact was actually a topic of conversation shortly after the pick came in. Not Only did Vlatko play for Nikola’s former team, he had the same agent in Europe. That lent itself to some excitement around the table. After all, the Nuggets found Jokić just before his meteoric rise. Vlatko was an unknown but the pipeline pedigree was there.
Amazingly, it took almost no time at all for the Slovenian Cyborg to catch fire as the Slovenian National Team took the Eurobasket by storm in late Summer. While Goran Dragic, Luka Doncic and...checks notes...O.G. unicorn Anthony Randolph were the key catalysts behind the title run, Čančar was a solid contributor off the bench for the team. After that Vlatko headed back the Mega Bemax for what would turn out to be his final season with the team and in Liga ABA. He continued to build on his success, starting the majority of his games, and even grabbing an MVP award for round 18 (Liga ABA Round MVP awards are sort of like NBA Player of the Month). This is when things really started to pick up steam.
He got the opportunity to go play for San Pablo Burgos in Liga Endesa. Now, Liga ABA is pretty darn good but outside of Euroleague, Liga Endesa is about as good as it gets in terms of European ball. The Spanish league serves as a final stop for some of the biggest European prospects before they to come to the NBA. Prospects like Ricky Rubio, Marc Gasol, Luka Doncic. Endesa is also home to former NBA players (again...Anthony Randolph) and Spanish legends like Sergio Lull and Rudy Fernandez. Vlatko arrived later in the year and didn’t get a ton of burn but did get the opportunity to start a handful of games and make an impact. Shortly thereafter at the Las Vegas Summer League, Nuggets faithful got their first look at Denver’s draft and stash.
Once again like Nikola before him, Vlatko was the talk of Summer league among Nuggets faithful. He had brought with him the sharp shooting that served him so well in Europe, but anyone looking at Vlatko’s stats on the web could see he could shoot it. Summer league gave a look into the stifling defense he had at his disposal. With the Nuggets struggling so much to defend at the time, seeing the promise of this young Euro just shutting dudes down was tantalizing even if it was against Summer league competition. Vlatko still wouldn’t find his way onto the NBA roster though. He headed back to Spain where he put together a great 2018-2019 season both on the court and in the weight room.
18 months apart. Dude flat out went to work in the gym pic.twitter.com/7Mnag0xOqw— Zach Mikaš (@ZachMikash) September 25, 2019
For his efforst Vlatko was named to Liga Endesa’s “Best Young Team” (sort of like the NBA’s All Rookie Team) and headed back over the Atlantic Ocean to compete in his second straight Summer League. This time it didn’t go as smoothly for him. He sprained his ankle just before the team left for Vegas which ended up slowing him down a bit. Still, Connelly and company had already seen enough. In truth, the plan all along seemed to be that 2019 was the year for Vlatko to make the leap to the NBA. Chris Dempsey of Altitude TV in fact tweeted out on draft night that the Nuggets planned for Čančar to play a couple seasons overseas first but that he was expected to come to the NBA. In the beginning of August the Nuggets made it official and gave Vlatko a three year deal and a guaranteed roster spot.
What does he bring?
As Connelly put it on Altitude Sports Radio last week when he was on with Vic Lombardi, Marc Mosure and Brett Kane: Vlatko is going to surprise a lot of people. There’s no doubt he has the NBA three point range and for the majority of his career he’s shot in the high 30% to low 40% range from that distance. His last season with San Pablo saw those numbers dip a bit (he shot just 32.7% from three) but that’s somewhat understandable given how much muscle he’s been adding to his body. Give him some more repetition shooting threes with those pythons and I have no doubt he makes it back to that 40% range. Even if he only is league average, his skill set has enough other positives to make an impact.
The defense is without a doubt a major part of Vlatko’s upside. He won’t strike anyone as someone who will be jumping out of his shoes to block shots. His lateral quickness is good but nothing out of the ordinary. His wingspan is solid. Make no mistake, he’s got a good tool set to work with though not the most impressive, but it’s Vlatko’s defensive IQ, his toughness and the fact that he’s made out of pure muscle that make him such a tough defender. He’s got the opportunity to develop into a guy who can cover all five positions on the floor. That versatility is key to any defense and for a Nuggets team that needs defensive help at the small forward position the most Vlatko can be just what the doctor ordered.
The versatility isn’t limited to the defensive side either. There’s more to Čančar’s offensive game than just three point shooting. Take a look at the video above. While there’s plenty of examples of Vlatko’s ability to catch and shoot from the perimeter and several moments where he shoots from well beyond the three point line, you’ll also see him taking guys off the dribble, using his footwork to beat defenders in the post and cutting to the rim to finish lobs. Obviously he’s not going to step in and became a key part of Denver’s offense right away, but there’s a lot to like about his fit in the Jokic centric offense Denver is going to run.
In fact, there’s a pretty good likelihood Vlatko won’t see much of the NBA level at all this year. Classically the Nuggets have let guys in his type of scenario spend time honing their game in the G-League for a year. The drawback will be that Denver will have to loan him out because they don’t have their own G-League team, but we’ve seen in the past how even when on another team’s developmental squad guys like Monte Morris and Torrey Craig have made their impact. This year for Vlatko will be about getting up to speed and adapting to NBA pace as well as adapting to being 22 years old and in a totally different continent. There’s always that chance too that the injury bug comes along and creates an opportunity like it did with Nikola when Jusuf Nurkic went down.
Whenever it is, I have a feeling Vlatko is going to make a name for himself here in the NBA. While it’s not fair to ask him to become the next Nikola, I don’t think he’s on the path to play a couple of seasons in the NBA and then head back to Europe (a la Joffrey Lauvergne). No, given his track record of continuously improving and taking his career in the right direction there’s little reason to believe there’s anywhere to go but up for the Nuggets latest diamond in the rough.